THE BLOG

Obama's Chance to Fix Food Aid

Food aid is in desperate need of change. Despite repeated international pledges to tackle world hunger, food aid fails to reach the most vulnerable and usually arrives late, in insufficient quantities, or not at all -- even in response to international appeals. When it does arrive, its quality often falls below basic nutritional standards.

What's more, food aid can even increase -- rather than reduce -- hunger. Development organizations that receive U.S. food aid often are required to "monetize" it, which means selling food on local markets in competition with the poor and hungry farmers aid is meant to help. Countries often donate when food prices are low, instead of when prices are high and the need is most critical. Even in the face of emergencies caused by conflict or natural disaster, governments fail to deliver the minimum food aid needed for basic survival. Food aid can also be wasteful and inefficient; some donors buy and ship food from their own national stores at high cost, instead of buying food locally or in the region.

Commitments to help the hungry will be put to the test at the bi-annual Food Aid Committee meeting in London this week, which will bring together several donor countries, including the world's biggest contributor to food aid, the United States. Hanging in the balance is the much-needed reform of the Food Aid Convention, a treaty that is unique in obligating donors to provide minimum levels of food aid. Unfortunately, the convention lacks the tools it needs to meet its goals.

Under the Food Aid Convention, food donors collectively must provide at least 5 million metric tons of food (or cash equivalent) annually to fight hunger in developing countries. This amount, however, falls far short of what is needed to fight food insecurity. It's a symbolic minimum with perverse incentives built in: it's far below the 10-13 million tons a year that the international community already donates; countries suffer no consequences when they don't deliver; and the tonnage requirement induces countries to donate food when prices are low, instead of when the hungry most need it.

For the past six years, donor states have lacked the will to renegotiate the expired convention. The United States and the European Community have squared off over trade, delaying a reform process by invoking long-stalled World Trade Organization negotiations on agriculture, ignoring the pressing issue of hunger.

Now, however, the European Community has indicated its willingness to renegotiate the Food Aid Convention. Whether the United States follows suit will be a test of the Obama administration's dedication to fighting world hunger. The administration has indicated it will improve U.S. development assistance to fight hunger. It should now commit to reforming the Food Aid Convention, making it a powerful tool to fight hunger and promote the right to food worldwide.

Reform should put the people who receive food aid at the center of food assistance. Their needs, rather than those of donor countries, must drive the process.

Donors should agree to comply with the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness and to adopt a human rights-based approach to food assistance. This approach guarantees transparency and accountability and mandates the participation and empowerment of people receiving aid, with the goal of ensuring that they can feed themselves.

Current annual commitment levels should be significantly increased. Failure to live up to minimum food assistance commitments should lead to meaningful consequences for donor states.

In recent years, some donors have adopted food assistance policies proven to work better, such as buying local or regional food for distribution, donating cash instead of food, and ending monetization. The United States should now join them.

The world's one billion hungry -- and the 8 million people expected to die this year from hunger and malnutrition -- cannot afford to wait. This week, their needs -- not those of donor countries -- should be at the heart of discussions at the Food Aid Committee.